By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s second most populous state, Victoria, on Sunday extended its state of emergency for four more weeks to July 19, as it battles a spike in coronavirus infections with a pick-up in community transmission.
The move came a day after the state said it would reimpose restrictions capping visitors to households to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10, starting Monday. The limits had been relaxed on June 1 to allow up to 20 people in households and public gatherings.
Victoria reported 19 new infections on Sunday, the fifth day of double digit-rises. The state has now had 1,836 total confirmed cases, a quarter of the cases in Australia, since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.
Sunday’s tally in Victoria included an Australia Rules football player, the first in the league to test positive.
The surge in Victoria has alarmed other states, which have had few, if any, new cases for several weeks. Queensland and Western Australia, which shut their borders in March and April respectively, said they would weigh Victoria’s situation before reopening.
“But the last thing we want to do is lift the borders, have lots of people come here, for example for school holidays, spread coronavirus in our state and then force us to go backwards on restrictions,” Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles said.
Despite Victoria’s surge, health officials see no need to require face masks. They would have limited value in a country where absolute numbers of transmission remain “very low”, said Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Nick Coatsworth.
Avoiding hugging and kissing was “arguably far more important than, say, wearing masks”, he said.
Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos said 210 of the state’s cases are believed tied to community transmission, blaming families who have held large gatherings attended by people with mild symptoms since restrictions were eased.
“We obviously have been concerned by the increasing numbers that we have seen in recent days. It is still a very serious situation,” Mikakos said at a televised media conference in Melbourne.
State police said they planned to step up enforcement, targeting suburbs where there have been breakouts and holiday spots during a state school vacation starting next week.
Individuals caught breaching restrictions face fines of up to A$1,652 ($1,129).
The Australian Industry Group, which represents a wide range of employers, said Victoria’s prolonging of restrictions, including extending work-from-home through July, would make it harder for businesses to reopen.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry and William Mallard)